HC Deb 26 November 2001 vol 375 cc729-32

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Malins

We recognise that this series of provisions is extremely important. As the Minister knows, they form a sort of package of new regulations that will require enforcement and attention. The various specialist organisations that deal with those substances should be made aware of the new requirements.

I have some questions about policing requirements as, in practice, they could prove difficult. Before I ask them, I draw the Committee's attention to the provisions on periods of notice in subsection (2). We are not clear whether in an emergency a period of notice of two days before the proposed entry would be satisfactory. Will the Minister comment on whether she could envisage circumstances in which there would be a need for much more rapid action?

In relation to powers of entry, a constable has to give notice under the provisions in the clause and can then enter "any relevant premises", so that clearly refers to the police.

It is true that under clause 65(5) the constable can

take with him such other persons as appear to him to be necessary. However, I wonder whether I can press the Minister a Little further on this issue. We are dealing with some possibly very dangerous and specialised substances. Is not it the case that, as often as not, the military will accompany the constable? If so, are those in the military aware of that, and can the Minister confirm that they have sufficient specialised operatives to cover the matter?

7.30 pm

To return to the police themselves, under clause 65, on the powers of entry, and under other clauses a policeman's knowledge will have to be very specialised indeed. On entering a premises, he or she will have to react quickly in a specialised and very knowledgeable way, much more so than in the normal course of events when the police investigate crimes. First, can the Minister confirm, therefore, whether the police force has specialised groups equipped and trained to deal with such events? Secondly, if that is not the case, can she confirm whether, given the sensitive and important nature of such matters, the police will receive specialised training from now on?

I want to draw to the Minister's attention another point, which relates to the accompanying of the police by civilians. It is obviously important that clause 65(5) will allow the constable to take with him such other persons as appear to him to be necessary. However, I can envisage—can the Minister?—circumstances in which such a person will be drawn not from the military or the police but from the civilian world: he or she might be an expert chemist, or someone of that sort. This very important point relates to insurance. I do not want to stray from the subject, but I have come across circumstances in which a civilian, who was seconded by the military and was, to all intents and purposes, in the military domain, returned from the Gulf war with some very bad symptoms not covered under the usual military insurance umbrella.

I pause just to say that, in relation to clause 65, I envisage the possibility of the police having with them civilian experts whom they might call in to help to enter a premises and a diagnosis once on the premises. Can the Minister confirm—if not now, as soon as possible—whether the fullest insurance cover will exist in every case in relation to that civilian who accompanies the policeman as though that civilian were part of the police force? Those are my queries in relation to clause 65, which, as I say, is important. One or two of the matters that I raise with the Minister need a little more thought.

Mr. Gummer

I should like to turn to the two working days' notice and the interrelation between clause 65 and the legislation that governs the keeping of such materials. If in the normal course of events and irrespective of the Bill it came to the authorities' notice that there was a danger that such materials might be leaking into the atmosphere, no one would give notice of any sort. The authorities would intervene as quickly as possible to discover whether what appeared to be happening was happening and, if it were, to stop it. The suggestion that two days' notice should be given worries me significantly, not only because terrorism may be involved but because of the interrelation between the Bill and the legislation that covers such things in any other event.

If ever there were a situation in which the powers of entry ought to be stronger rather than weaker, this is it. As one who has criticised tie Bill because it includes a series of provisions and powers that ought not to be included, it seems only right for me to tell the Minister that I hope clause 65(2) is contradicted elsewhere in the Bill, so that we do not get into that mess. If clause 65(2) is contradicted, perhaps it should include the phrase "two working days in normal circumstances". If such a contradiction exists, the provision should be changed so that it is not quite so obvious as it appears.

Mr. Dalyell

Subsection (5) states: The powers of a constable under this section include power to take with him such other persons as appear to him to be necessary. I suspect that I ask a rather obvious question to which there is an obvious answer, but exactly to whom does the phrase "other persons" refer? Do the Government think that it includes people from a local university or people from industry? Whom do they envisage accompanying the constable in those very complex matters?

Beverley Hughes

Clause 65 relates to the kind of routine checks that constables can make in accordance with part 7. In those circumstances, on a periodic basis, two days' notice would be given. Of course, if rapid action were needed for whatever reason, it would be possible to get a warrant from a justice of the peace. Clause 66, on search warrants and powers of entry in an emergency, would determine the ability of the police to act very quickly if they had reason to believe that security arrangements were failing. So the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) are covered.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, have asked about the person who will accompany the constable. We envisage that, in practice, constables will probably need to be accompanied by a scientist working in the field, rather than by the military. Hon. Members who obviously have great knowledge of such issues will know that there are several establishments that can provide people with the right expertise and experience to accompany constables in that way.

The hon. Member for Woking also asked about insurance. I will investigate that further, but as I have just said, we envisage that the people who accompany constables would already work in the field. However, I will certainly check whether those who are contracted to undertake such inspections with constables are covered by the insurance at their own place of work.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) raised several issues. There is a possible link to the point that, I think, he was making about escaping pathogens, but these provisions relate to the security of premises, so the matters he raises are not squarely relevant to the provisions under consideration at the moment. I hope that I have assisted hon. Members and that they will accept those reassurances.

Mr. Gummer

I thank the Minister, but she has misunderstood my point. Although it is perfectly true that the provisions in the Bill are for one purpose and that other legislation is for another purpose, when the two purposes come together the same people and the same information will be involved. The provisions in this clause should not be a more onerous or less effective burden on those who have to carry them out.

The Minister said—I am sure that she meant it—that the powers of entry under this clause relate to routine checks. However, clause 66 contains a series of conditions and none of them specifically covers what would happen if an emergency arose and no notice could be given. Clause 66 gives a number of reasons why notice cannot be given, but the list is not exhaustive. It would be more helpful if it were made clear that clause 65 relates to normal activities and that in abnormal circumstances two days' notice would not be required. I hope that the Minister will consider that point, because she will see that clause 66 does not cover all the possible circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 66 to 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

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